Introductory observations - First period, from Henry VII. to the year 1588 - Second period, from 1588 to 1640 - Meeting of Parliament - Redress of grievances - Strafford's attainder - The commencement of the Civil War - Treaty from the Isle of Wight - The king's execution - Cromwell's power; his character - Indifference of the nation respecting forms of government - The Restoration - Ministry of Clarendon sod Southampton - Cabal - Dutch War - De Witt - The Prince of Orange - The Popish plot - The Habeas Corpus Act - The Exclusion Bill - Dissolution of Charles the Second's last Parliament - His power; his tyranny in Scotland; in England - Exorbitant fines - Executions - Forfeitures of charters - Despotism established - Despondency of good men - Charles's death; his character - Reflections upon the probable consequences of his reign and death.
In reading the history of every country there are certain periods at which the mind naturally pauses to meditate upon, and consider them, with reference, not only to their immediate effects, but to their more remote consequences. After the wars of Marius and Sylla, and the incorporation, as it were, of all Italy with the city of Rome, we cannot but stop to consider the consequences likely to result from these important events; and in this instance we find them to be just such as might have been expected.
The reign of our Henry VII. affords a field of more doubtful speculation. Every one who takes a retrospective view of the wars of York and Lancaster, and attends to the regulations effected by the policy of that prince, must see they would necessarily lead to great and important changes in the government; but what the tendency of such changes would be, and much more, in what manner they would be produced, might be a question of great difficulty. It is now the generally received opinion, and I think a probable opinion, that to the provisions of that reign we are to refer the origin, both of the unlimited power of the Tudors and of the liberties wrested by our ancestors from the Stuarts; that tyranny was their immediate, and liberty their remote, consequence; but he must have great confidence in his own sagacity who can satisfy himself that, unaided by the knowledge of subsequent events, he could, from a consideration of the causes, have foreseen the succession of effects so different.
Another period that affords ample scope for speculation of this kind is that which is comprised between the years 1588 and 1640, a period of almost uninterrupted tranquillity and peace. The general improvement in all arts of civil life, and, above all, the astonishing progress of literature, are the most striking among the general features of that period, and are in themselves causes sufficient to produce effects of the utmost importance. A country whose language was enriched by the works of Hooker, Raleigh, and Bacon, could not but experience a sensible change in its manners and in its style of thinking; and even to speak the same language in which Spenser and Shakespeare had written seemed a sufficient plea to rescue the commons of England from the appellation of brutes, with which Henry VIII. had addressed them. Among the more particular effects of this general improvement the most material and worthy to be considered appear to me to have been the frequency of debate in the House of Commons, and the additional value that came to be set on a seat in that assembly.
From these circumstances a sagacious observer may be led to expect the most important revolutions; and from the latter he may be enabled to foresee that the House of Commons will be the principal instrument in bringing them to pass. But in what manner will that house conduct itself? Will it content itself with its regular share of legislative power, and with the influence which it cannot fail to possess whenever it exerts itself upon the other branches of the legislative, and on the executive power; or will it boldly (perhaps rashly) pretend to a power commensurate with the natural rights of the representative of the people? If it should, will it not be obliged to support its claims by military force? And how long will such a force be under its control? How long before it follows the usual course of all armies, and ranges itself under a single master? If such a master should arise, will he establish an hereditary or an elective government? If the first, what will be gained but a change of dynasty? If the second, will not the military force, as it chose the first king or protector (the name is of no importance), choose in effect all his successors? Or will he fail, and shall we have a restoration, usually the most dangerous and worst of all revolutions? To some of these questions the answers may, from the experience of past ages, be easy, but to many of them far otherwise. And he will read history with most profit who the most canvasses questions of this nature, especially if he can divest his mind for the time of the recollection of the event as it in fact succeeded.
The next period, as it is that which immediately precedes the commencement of this history, requires a more detailed examination; nor is there any more fertile of matter, whether for reflection or speculation. Between the year 1640 and the death of Charles II. we have the opportunity of contemplating the state in almost every variety of circumstance. Religious dispute, political contest in all its forms and degrees, from the honest exertions of party and the corrupt intrigues of faction to violence and civil war; despotism, first, in the person of a usurper, and afterwards in that of an hereditary king; the most memorable and salutary improvements in the laws, the most abandoned administration of them; in fine, whatever can happen to a nation, whether of glorious of calamitous, makes a part of this astonishing and instructive picture.